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Sharing his knowledge

Retired teacher likes to share his lifetime of research


   Alan Bohme is a man of many words and an abundance of energy. He said he didn’t have too much time for an interview, but two hours later he was still talking. As a retired chemistry and physics teacher, who is an avid reader, Alan continues to share his knowledge, wit and humor with both students and adults. He is a substitute teacher for both the Pine River/Backus and the Pequot Lakes school districts and is also a tutor for high school and college students. The historian and storyteller has many other interests as well, which include an abundance of trivia on various topics, such as the Roaring ‘20s, gangsters of Minnesota, astronomy, movie stars from the past, and his thoughts of the Holocaust, an event he is passionate about due to his Jewish faith. He doesn’t only share his various interests with school students but also in area communities through community education classes or civic organizations. “I do many of these presentations as a volunteer. I don’t expect or want to be paid,” he said adamantly, “I just want to pay it forward.” He referred to “tikkun olam,” a Hebrew phrase that is practiced by the Jewish meaning to repair or restore the world. “It’s the Jewish sense of social justice that includes supporting public schools, work to end poverty, and treat everyone fairly,” he added. “But the Jews were persecuted for the way we believe.” Alan said he likes to talk about social justice but tries to keep his political views out of the classroom. The Roaring ‘20s One of the subjects Alan shares with both students and adults is the Roaring ‘20s. He taped music of the 1920s from 78 rpm shellac records that plays while he speaks about the time of dramatic social and political changes. The most familiar symbol of this era is the “flapper” that is usually associated with young women who wore short loose-fitting dresses and bobbed hair. They loved to dance the Charleston, the Black Bottom, Fox Trot, or the tango, and even did “unlady-like” things like smoking and drinking alcohol. But Alan clarified the term “flapper.” “The young women of the ‘20s had their own fads for the first time,” he said.  “They wore unbuckled (rubber) galoshes that would make a flapping sound as they walked and that’s why they were called flappers.” This was also an era when women entered the workplace, mainly in office jobs. The 19th Amendment, passed in 1920, gave women the right to vote, and the economy was growing rapidly until the market crashed in 1929. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities rather than on farms. Birth control devices became available, such as the diaphragm, that allowed women to have fewer children. The vacuum cleaner and the washing machine were also introduced, giving women a bit more free time from household duties. Due to Prohibition, liquor was sold through the black market. The twenties were also known as the Jazz Age, with the big band sound of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson and songwriter George Gershwin. The silent movies, accompanied by piano or organ music, were soon overtaken by sound movies referred to as “talkies.” The first full-length sound movie was The Jazz Singer that premiered in 1927 starring Al Jolson. One of the reasons that Alan is interested in this era is that his mother, Jean, was a flapper. She was also a singer and met Alan’s father, David, a professional violinist and orchestra leader, while performing on stage. His father’s legal name was David Romaine Bohme who immigrated from Poland to Chicago in 1928. His professional name, David Romaine, was heard on radio and television as he performed with such stars as Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was also heard on the Chicago radio station, WLS, the Prairie Farmer station, and he was Fiddlin’ Dave on WGN’s Dawn Busters show. He was most proud to have played with the Philharmonic of Chicago and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “So both my parents were performers, so isn’t it logical that I should teach chemistry and physics?” Alan laughed. However, he did inherit some musical talent as he plays the piano, flute and ukulele. Gangsters of Minnesota “St. Paul was one of the most crooked cities in the nation for crime,” Alan said, adding that there is a good turnout of people when he speaks on the topic. The 18th Amendment, known as the Prohibition Amendment (1920-1933), prohibited the manufacture, sale, transport, import or export of alcoholic beverages. Breweries were forced to close the manufacturing of legal liquor and that led to “bootlegged” (illegal) products that expanded to smuggling, gambling, prostitution, extortion, robbery and murder. According to the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), lawlessness and corruption of police and city officials spread through many cities, including St. Paul. The MHS website reports, “The city became a center of operation and a home for notorious gangsters as John Dillinger, Babyface Nelson, Roger “the Terrible” Touhy, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and the Barker gang, whose activities extended to robbing banks, holding up mail trucks and trains, and kidnapping and holding their hostages for ransom.” However, Alan noted that Dillinger usually robbed police stations. “Dillinger stole weapons, ammunition, money, and bulletproof vests,” he said. “He even stole a sheriff’s car in Crown Point, Ind., which was one of the first V8s made. Law enforcement cars couldn’t keep up with him, and he got away. However, he did get caught when he crossed the state line.” The city of Brainerd had a taste of gangster crime in October 1933 when the First National Bank was robbed of $32,000 by Baby Face Nelson, Homer Van Meter and three other men. The local newspaper reported the men had been in the city for 10 days to plan the robbery when the bank opened in the morning. The plan to rob the bank was very detailed, and Nelson and his crew knew the first names of the bank employees. As the gangsters left in a car, they sprayed surrounding buildings with machine guns. Fortunately, no one was killed. Ma Barker and her sons, Herman, Lloyd, Arthur and Fred, teamed with Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and formed the Barker-Karpis gang, who traveled throughout the nation committing crimes. They robbed the payroll of the St. Paul Stockyards in the early 1930s. Although Ma Barker knew her sons were criminals, there are reports that Ma herself did not commit any crimes. “Yes, she knew her kids were crooks,” said Alan, “But she was shot by the FBI in Florida, and yet she never shot a gun at anyone in her life. At the age of 61, she was shot 11 times without shooting back. If anything, she probably could have been charged with harboring a criminal.” Alan refers to Karpis as the “toughest of the tough,” adding that Karpis was sent to Alcatraz where he taught Charles Manson to play the steel guitar. Manson was a cult leader in the 1960s who murdered many people and is serving life in prison. Movie Stars from the Past Alan also enjoys talking about the movie stars from the 1920s and ‘30s. “One of my favorites is Tallulah Bankhead, a respected stage actress of both stage and screen,” he said. She was the daughter of William Bankhead, who was the Speaker of the House in the late 1930s. Her flamboyant personality and deep voice were well known, and she won many awards for her performances in the Little Foxes, Skin of Our Teeth, and in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Greta Garbo, born in Sweden, was a star in silent and talkie movies. “She learned English so that she could continue her career in the talkies,” Alan noted. The star, however, retired at the age of 35 and lived a secluded life until she died in 1990. In comparison, Alan spoke about Rudolph Valentino. “Valentino was a star in the silent movies, but he spoke Italian and his accent was so bad, he would never have made it in the talkies,” Alan believes. Valentino became famous in the 1921 movie, The Sheik, and was known to fans as the Great Lover of the 1920s. He died at the age of 31 from peritonitis. Thousands of fans crowed the funeral home to view his body, and funerals were held in New York City and Los Angeles. Loretta Young was the first actress to win both an Oscar and an Emmy and was one of the first female actresses to earn a six-figure salary. Her career started at the age of 4 as a child actress in silent movies. Alan said that Young had a daughter with the famous actor Clark Gable but said the baby was adopted while she was married to movie producer Thomas Lewis, with whom she had two sons. She and Gable had an affair while working on the movie, The Call of the Wild. In 1953, the actress had her own television show, The Loretta Young Show, in which she entered through a door with a swirl and a twirl. The show ended in 1961, making Young one of the first Hollywood stars to have a successful career in both movies and television. In a biography published after her death, Young admitted in an interview with the book’s author that Gable was the father of her daughter, Judy Lewis, who also became an actress, director and producer. Lewis was an adult before her mother admitted that Clark Gable was her father. Lewis died in 2011. Astronomy, too? Astronomy, a completely different subject from gangsters, movie stars and the 1920s, is yet just another great interest of Alan’s. Born and raised in Chicago, Alan graduated from the University of Chicago with degrees in chemistry and physics. “It (the university) showed me how little I know. It humbled me greatly,” he admitted. “It was exceptional!” After singing the school song, Alan said he taught at Amundsen High School in Chicago for over 30 years, the third-smallest high school in the windy city and with a very diverse enrollment. He said that it was difficult to teach as many students did not know English well. He’s thankful he was in the mathematics field since math is a universal language that is easier for the students to comprehend. But there were also gangs in many neighborhoods, but that didn’t stop Alan from inviting some gang members to look at the stars and other heavenly bodies through his telescope. “They loved it!” Alan remembers, “and they were excited to watch the moon go around the Earth.” Alan has a reflecting Comet Catcher telescope with which he searches the skies. “Without a telescope, you can see over

1,000 stars with the human eye. The stars we see are the brightest but the fewest,” he said, “and with a telescope you can see 10 times as many.” He can see the rings of Saturn and even Uranus and Neptune. But he believes that Mars is the most interesting planet to look at. Alan explained that in the late 1800s, an Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, named the seas on Mars, and he observed many curved lines on the red planet which he called “canali” meaning “channels.” However, the canalis were misinterpreted to be “canals” in English. “Channels are curved and are formed naturally; canals are straight,” Alan emphasized, “so that’s why people thought there was life on Mars, as the canals must have been built by Martians.” Alan confessed that he’s not that interested in observing the moon. “It’s so close and already explored,” he said. “Eventually, the moon will flip out of its orbit as the moon is going further out as it orbits, but it won’t happen during our lifetime. It will be a long time.” He’s conducted astronomy classes through community education classes in Pequot Lakes and Pine River, which many people have attended. His classes have also visited with two other astronomers in Nisswa and Pine River. Alan and his wife, Doris, have been married for over 36 years. Returning home through the Brainerd area from their honeymoon in Ontario in 1977, they decided to look at some retirement property and bought lake property near Backus. Alan was familiar with the area as his father was a band leader at Breezy Point in 1952-53. He and Doris have two children and nine grandchildren. The couple moved from Chicago to their lake home in 1997. He is member of the Backus Lions Club, enjoys volunteering and has been a mentor with Kinship Partners for two years. He continues to pay it forward. He always has a joke or trivia to share. “No one wants to play Trivial Pursuit with me,” he grinned, “as I always win!”

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